An itsy bitsy spider went up my water spout

When it comes to the division of labor in our house, democratic voting may not always be the determining factor. Some tasks are simply my tasks - no discussion. High on the list comes the tickly question of spiders and the gentle disposal thereof.

All the same, at 5 a.m. yesterday I decided that the spider that had taken up slippery residence in our otherwise empty bathtub was going to have to wait to be rescued until a decent hour. I went back to bed.

"See you later, my friend," I muttered.

I quite like spiders. At least, they do not instill me with murderous intent. I just do my best to encourage in them a taste for outdoor living, rather than indoor or in-bath living.

They show me no ill will, and I strongly suspect that they, in turn, have little notion of the palpitations they perpetrate on some people. I suppose they do hear the smothered screams (who wouldn't?), but they may not associate them with their own good selves.

After all, the relative dimensions of humans and spiders suggest trepidation on the opposite side of the equation. Seeing a giant 300 times your size, with two gigantic legs (hairy or otherwise) rearing up and looming darkly over you, would seem calculated to strike justifiable horror into the cockles of a spider's heart. But often it is the giant who retreats.

I have to admit that I am not sure how comfortably I might bond with some of the bigger, more hirsute members of the arachnid tribe - though they, too, are only a small fraction of my size. I have never thought of them as exactly cuddly.

On the other hand, a mutual fondness is plain to see when watching zoo professionals and nature lovers handle such characters.

Recently, in search of a large frog (that's another story), I ended up in one of Glasgow's oldest shops, Tam Shepards. It's a joke shop, and its lady proprietresses are gearing up for this scary time of year, when they are busiest.

"No, the only frog we have is very small," said one of these amiable ladies. But since necessity is oft the mother of alternatives, she offered instead - a spider.

It was a good eight inches across. Its large eyes leered at me from the counter. Its legs were uncannily animated in a loosely sprung, unpredictable manner.

They jiggled. I thought of the "Old lady who swallowed a spider that wriggled and jiggled and squiggled inside her" and discovered, to my surprise, a sudden reluctance to touch this rubberoid creature. And I thought of Little Miss Muffet, and of Beatrix Potter.

When Beatrix Potter wrote her delightful mini-paean to the smaller creatures, "The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse," the spider who "visited" the terribly tidy little mouse's home to shelter from the rain, politely enquires "Beg pardon, is this not Miss Muffet's?"

Mrs. T is not so easily frightened. The episode unravels as follows, and it typifies the attitude of generations of proud yet timid homeowners: " 'Go away, you bold bad spider! Leaving ends of cobweb all over my nice clean house!'

"She bundled the spider out a window. He let himself down the hedge with a long thin bit of string."

While Potter's spider is more fascinating than frightening (it is charmingly in the tradition of the finger game "Itsy bitsy spider" that "climbed up the water spout"), the spider is unwelcome and blamed for being antidomestic.

Perhaps the most thoroughly decent spider in fiction is E.B. White's Charlotte, that canny saver of bacon.

Wilbur, her pig friend, soon regrets his knee-jerk distaste for her apparently cruel way of capturing food and discovers, along with the reader, the affectionate and patient benevolence that even a common gray spider weaving its web in a barn may evince.

White makes us sympathize completely with Charlotte, and feel as sad as Wilbur when she reaches the end of her natural cycle. Presenting essentially a child's view of a spider, he suggests that a horror of such a creature is an educated rather than an instinctive thing - something perpetrated by adults on children.

Returning to the bathroom just before breakfast, I found our latest spider visitor had vanished. I also noticed that someone - and it could only be she who had risen before me - had put the plug firmly in place.

"Did you kill the spider?" I called.

"No. He was still there when I went in."

"He's gone."

This worried her. Seeing a spider, it seems, is discombobulating enough. But knowing that a spider is invisibly lurking - hiding somewhere ready to spring and devour you in one fell spiderly swoop, is far worse. We had to find out where the spider had gone.

Why is it that spiders seem so fatally determined to abseil from ceiling into bathtub? And once they have let out their string sufficiently to moon-land on the shiny enamel surface, why do they then cut themselves loose from their only lifeline? I rescue more spiders from the deep crater of our bath than from anywhere else.

We now own a humane spider-catching device. My wife's purchase of it demonstrates a promising degree of consideration. I still rely on the scoop-into-a-glass technique of old. It works well enough, as our gaggle of now al fresco arachnids would bear witness.

This morning's spider was ingenious. He had scrambled up the plug chain and was perched, camouflaged, atop the overflow hole. He now lives in the ivy just outside. Unless, of course, some passing old lady has swallowed him.

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